The History of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho
The History of Bhutan.
Karma Phuntsho. Noida, India: Random House India, 2013. (Reprinted by University of Chicago Press, 2014). 661 pages. ISBN 9788184003116.
Reviewed by Michael Givel
In recent years, there have been
a number of Bhutanese and other scholars and analysts who are associated with literary and scholarly analyses concerning Bhutan that is analogous to the realism movement in art and literature. Realism attempts to portray everyday
life as accurately as possible by avoiding sentimentalized, synthetic, improbable, and supernatural themes. This is in contrast to portraying life in an idealized form such as often occurs in mythology
or folklore. The idealized narrative in current years, particularly
in some foreign media news
stories and by tourist agencies,
has described Bhutan as remote, breathtaking, environmentally
friendly, “shrouded in mystery
and magic,” and representing a manifestation of the last Shangri- La (Lonely Planet. Introducing Bhutan. Accessed February 15, 2017,
In Karma Phuntsho’s 2013 well-re- searched, definitive, and highly detailed book, The History of Bhutan, this idealized view of Bhutan is replaced with an in-depth historical analysis based in the realist perspec- tive of how Bhutan has progressed before, during, and after its inception as a nation in 1651. In particular,
the book provides an overview of how and why Bhutan advanced as a society over the centuries, analyzing periods of progress and advancement and/or deep-seated intrigue, conflict, and armed battles. The book begins by providing a detailed historical overview of Bhutanese geography and the history of various ethnic groups that live in modern Bhutan. These include the western and north- ern Ngalop, the eastern Sharchop, the southern Lhotshampa and various other ethnic peoples spread through- out Bhutan.
The book then provides an overview of the first major cultural period
in pre-Bhutan prior to the seventh century, which was dominated by the Bon religion and worldview. Bon was and is an animistic worldview that posits that the natural world is vibrantly alive with good and evil deities. So from the Bon perspective, individual mountains, for instance,
are not only distinct geographic places but are alive.
Also covered in the book is the arrival from the seventh century to the present of the next major cultural period of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan or Mahayana Buddhism focuses on achieving enlightenment for all in the here and now. In the Mahayana tradition, the Buddha is viewed as
a benevolent supernatural entity. The very gradual transition over the centuries to Mahayana Buddhism was never an easy linear path. As Phuntsho illustrates in great detail, there were periods of tension and cooperation between Bon and Mahayana worshipers. Eventually, Mahayana Buddhism became dom- inant. However, it never totally supplanted Bon traditions in Bhutan, some of which exist to this day.
The third cultural period in Bhutan commenced in the middle of the twentieth century with the rise of modernization and global capitalism in Bhutanese society. As the book describes, this third cultural period is now increasingly in conflict with the prior two traditional cultural periods of Bon and Buddhism. One of the key issues in modern Bhutan today is how traditional values can be maintained or balanced with the increasingly dominant, powerful, and secular forces of materialism, modernization, and private enterprise.
The second major theme covered in the book is the transition in gov- ernmental form from a Buddhist theocracy from 1651 to 1907, to a
HIMALAYA Volume 37, Number 2 | 135
Phuntsho’s book is an excellent overview and account from a realist perspective of the long-term history and transition of Bhutan.
Michael Givel on The History of Bhutan
hereditary monarchy from 1907 to 2008, to a democratic constitutional monarchy from 2008 to the present. The book, in realist fashion, provides a robust description from 1651 to 1907 of past accomplishments and ongoing intrigue such as civil wars and assassinations of civilian heads of state. Eventually, in 1907 the gov- ernmental form became a hereditary monarchy. Since 1907 to the present, there have been five hereditary kings from the Wangchuck royal family.
In 2001, the Fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck commenced the process and transi- tion to a democratic constitutional monarchy, which culminated with the adoption of the new Bhutanese Constitution in 2008. Currently, democratization in Bhutan progresses in tandem with the rise of modern- ization and market capitalism. This modern trend represents a consider- able departure from the past when Bhutan was a Buddhist theocracy and later a hereditary monarchy and pri- marily agriculture society steeped in Buddhist culture and tradition. With this transition comes a myriad of modern problems and issues, such as the provision of quality health care, educational attainment, and poverty that are far removed from the ide- alized last Shangri-La description of modern Bhutan. As Phuntsho writes, “Today, even while young Bhutanese eye an opportunity to travel to the US and engage in manual jobs to earn quick bucks, the rest of the world
is looking up to Bhutan as a happy country—a postmodern Shangri-La.
It is indeed a very lofty position to
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reach and perhaps even loftier to maintain in the changing fortunes of time” (p. 599).
Phuntsho’s book is an excellent overview and account from a
realist perspective of the long-term history and transition of Bhutan. It
is required reading for scholars of Bhutanese history and culture, inter- national area studies, Asian studies, Asian history, political science, international relations, religious studies, and comparative public policy to comprehend the complex factors shaping modern Bhutan. By not painting an idealized picture with well researched and numerous dense historical facts, this book reveals that a careful analysis of modern Bhutan shows that Bhutan, while being a beautiful place, also has faced signifi- cant issues over time.
Michael Givel is professor of political science at The University of Oklahoma. He was the first US Fulbright in Bhutan in 2009, and is the Director in Bhutan and curator for the University of Oklahoma of the Bhutanese digital rare and historical document collection. His research and teaching specialization includes com- parative public policy, Himalayan area studies, policy theory, complexity theory, social movements, and health policy.
Thanks Marvellous Bhutan Travel for taking such good care of my kid during the trip!
-- Nai Min Chong
Thank you Marvellous Bhutan Travel! The name says it all! The service and trip was marvellous! Needless to say, the experience you get when you travel with them! Every detail was looked into so that the trip is safe, culturally enriching and that everything runs smoothly! Would reccommed anyone who would want to travel to this mythical land of happiness to travel with them! Personally I have travelled with them and they have left a deep and touching experience. Went on a 5 day trek too! The guides and crew were very professional. Comfort during the trek was ensured! The view and the scenery are breathtaking! It is trip that not only allows you to have a peek at the Buthanese way of life but more importantly one that touches your heart.
This is my second time travel to Bhutan, but first time to across east to west, and first time to be with Marvellous team. Our guide, Chokyi and Phuntsho, were always warm and friendly. They drove two days previous, from west to east, to recieve us at Guwahati airport, which is in India, near the boarder of eastern Bhutan. Due to the weather, our flight to Guwahati was delayed almost 5 hours. They were worried when we did not appear at the appointed time. Finally, when we connected with each other, they didn’t feel any impatient, just told us to take our time, they would wait until we arrived. That time, we were sorry but really touched.
During twelve days travel, the itinerary was well-planned. We were only two people. Chokyi and Phuntsho hosted us along the trip as if we were VIP. Phuntsho is a very nice guide. He knows the history of every places very well. His explanation was simple for us to understand, just as telling a story.
To travel with Marvellous team felt us relax and comfortable, just like being with friends. We enjoyed every present moment in this blessed land. Wherever across the farming land or climb up to majestic mountain, we all enjoyed the beauty in summer season of Bhutan. All things looked green and vibrant, as if every inch of land was filled with plants.
We represent our thankful to Marvellous Bhutan Travel, especially to Chokyi and Phuntsho, for your hospitality, and give all our best blessings to you.
See you in the future. — with Phuntsho Wangdi and 2 others.
-- Hsin-Yi Huang
This is the best trip my sister and I have ever had! Feeling so blessed�. Bhutan is the best place for pilgrimage, living and relaxation. I never expect myself to be able to hike and walk so much�based on my health condition. Thank you for helping us to carry our belongings while hiking. This will not be our last trip to Bhutan. We will go back again. Thank you all!
-- Veronica Chua
Really appreciate Marvellous team to show us the happiest land on earth. Very well thoughtful program to train us for the climb to tiger nest ! It paid off. Highly recommended
-- Anson Wang
Marvellous Travel – The name speaks for itself. It was indeed a marvellous Yoga
Retreat in Bhutan. We were there in July 2018. The weather did not fail us
throughout that entire week until our last night it rained. We were lucky.
Marvellous Travel – Chokyi, Phuntsho and Sangey hosted us for a week. The
itinerary was well-planned by them. Great thanks to them for taking care of us
during our time there.
We enjoyed the wonderful Bhutanese songs while travelling on the bus. Our
main guide Phuntsho is well-versed on the history of the places that he does
his explanation as if he was telling a story. We rested well on the bus as we
were in good hands of our bus driver – Sangey. Chokyi was always praying for
the rain to stay away from us. Marvellous Travel!
And since it was a yoga retreat, they participated in one of our classes. It was
spontaneous for them as first timers. Kudos~~
Apart from Marvellous Travel, Bhutan has sublime scenery that takes our mind
to be there at that present moment, nothing else. We were surrounded by
majestic mountains wherever we went. We don’t have to look out for it, it is
just there. Thumbs-up!
It is highly recommended to travel with Marvellous Travel in Bhutan. Go with
an open heart and receive their warm hospitality. They are there to offer any
help you need there. Namaste…
Exceptional helpful guides. Was very touched when one of them piggy back my mom down the steep hills when she had difficulties walking. Thank you.
-- Silver Wave
This is a most special trip that I have never been before, hope all the travel agent would always have this special service to all who visit Bhutan. A big thank you to all Bhutan people.
-- Christine Teh
THANK YOU MARVELLOUS BHUTAN TRAVEL.
It was amazing experience, people in your country are so kind and worm.
Everything was very good. All the compliments to your staff, the guide and the driver. They very professional.
-- Jon Mack
Professional and knowledgeable. Queries were promptly answered, highly recommended
-- Tay Lily
Had a wonderful 7D6N tour. Thank u Marvellous Travel.
-- Luar Elina
The trip was well thought out and executed, thanks for a wonderful trip!
-- Nai Min Chong
Thank you Phuntsho Wangdi and Sangey for a wonder seven days 11-17 June 2017. Michael Toh and myself enjoyed ourselves tremendously.
-- Vicky Chong
Bhutan was the most wonderful friendly country. Phuntsho our guide was the best and really looked after us and was very knowlegable in the history while keeping us entertained as well. Tiger’s nest was the highlight, amazing place. The tour Agency Marvellous Bhutan Travel organised the whole tour to perfection even organising my friend’s 40th birthday evening.
-- Jissica Lic
We are a family of 5 traveling first time to Bhutan, our youngest family member being 7 years old. Our guide, Phuntsho is a charming, knowledgeable and sensitive young man who is prepared to go the extra mile to make our trip a good one. Sangey, our “grandfatherly” driver is extremely experienced as the mountain roads are not easy to handle. Last but not least, Chokyi – the enterprising one for making all these happen. The cultural performance was both a surprise and a delight! It is our first trip and won’t be our last! Thank you & Tashi Delek!!!!!
-- Esther Chia Shu Ling